Consumers coming to expect free carrier Wi-Fi

Two numbers stood out in Wi-Fi aggregator Devicescape’s third-quarter customer survey released Tuesday. The first: 83 percent of Devicescape customers surveyed believed operators owe it to their customers to provide bundled Wi-Fi access to supplement their mobile broadband plans. The second: 26 percent of those customers are unaware that operators are capping mobile data plans.

That Devicescape customers think free Wi-Fi from their operators is an inalienable right shouldn’t come as surprise considering who those customers are. Devicescape aggregates millions of free unmanaged Wi-Fi access points and hotspots globally, creating a virtual network, which customers can hop on and off of at will and without access charges. It sells a client to handset makers and operators (MetroPCS(s PCS), Canada’s Public Mobile and iPass(s ipas) all use it) that automatically detects and logs into these access points, whether it’s free Internet at an independent coffee shop or a network of thousands of access points owned by a hotel chain.

By virtue of being Devicescape users – or members, as it calls them – all the consumers polled are all getting supplementary Wi-Fi access via a Devicescape partner or directly through the aggregator’s downloadable client. They’d naturally come to expect such a service as a given. And since most Wi-Fi handsets out there are smartphones, they tend to be a more sophisticated lot, further explaining the 83-percent response. But CEO Dave Fraser said Devicescape customers aren’t necessarily all savvy tech enthusiasts. Instead, they tend to be students and office professionals with traveling salesmen and even some retirees thrown into the mix. They represent a healthy cross-section of the mobile data consuming public, Fraser said.

What’s particularly interesting, though, is how those numbers don’t seem to gel with operators’ own attitudes. A recent Wireless Broadband Alliance study found 47 percent of operators viewed Wi-Fi offload as very important or crucial to their future mobile data strategies. While that’s no small number, if compared against Devicescape’s numbers, there seems to big a gap between how operators and their customers view the importance of carrier Wi-Fi.

The second surprising statistic from the survey is that 26 percent Devicescape’s users aren’t aware data plans are being capped. That would make perfect sense if we were talking a much broader pool of consumers, but remember these users tend to be very network- and plan-aware, otherwise they probably wouldn’t bother with Devicescape’s service. The study found 88 percent of those users know when they’re on Wi-Fi and when they’re on the cellular network, so they’re not blithely stumbling back and force between networks. Fraser said that gap might have less to do with customer ignorance than with how well operators have masked the specifics of their data caps and throttling plans. “Many people aren’t that sophisticated,” Fraser said in an email interview. “Did you read the capping note from AT&T?  Long text, lots of boring legalese.”